This week began with a head of state begging for forgiveness. In Poland, where a Nazi air strike on the town of Wielun launched the Second World War in 1939, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier marked the anniversary on Sunday morning with a message of atonement: “I bow before the Polish victims of German tyranny, and I ask for your forgiveness … and I recognize our enduring responsibility.” It was his country’s duty, he said, to sustain the European project that has prevented the forces of nationalism and intolerance from overtaking the continent again.
Mr. Steinmeier’s words were unusually timely and portentous. Across Europe, that pledge is being tested in real-life political crises – in fact, it was challenged just hours after his speech.
That very evening, elections in the two largest German states that were formerly part of the communist German Democratic Republic saw more people voting for an extreme-right party than any region of Germany has seen since the 1930s. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party captured about a quarter of the votes in Saxony and Brandenburg – despite the fact that its candidate for the state premiership in Brandenburg has attended at least one swastika-waving neo-Nazi rally.
That gave it a second-place finish in both states, but forced the more tolerable political parties into a difficult conundrum: How could they form a government without the extremists of the right, and should they?
Europe’s conservative and centre-left parties have traditionally responded to right-wing extremist parties by treating them not like legitimate voices of conventional politics, but like a public-health problem or a criminal outbreak. In many countries, especially Germany, the major parties have maintained a cordon sanitaire around such parties of racial intolerance, refusing to form governments or otherwise do business with them. But the strength of the cordon is tested when those fringe parties attract numbers that push them into the mainstream.
To avoid doing business with this century’s version of the brownshirts, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union – Germany’s mainstream conservative party – will likely have to govern alongside the Social Democrats and the Greens in those two state legislatures, and possibly with the ex-communist Left Party. To many people on the right of the CDU, that sounds intolerable; imagine Canada’s Conservatives being forced to share power with the NDP and the Greens.
Some are now arguing that it might be better to break the cordon and invite the AfD into a coalition government – after all, they argue, a dip in the chill waters of real-life politics may well turn them more moderate and tolerant.
“You cannot just ignore the 12 million people who vote for or sympathize with them,” Martin Patzelt, a 72-year-old federal MP with the CDU, said in an interview over the summer. “For the sake of these people I have to enter into a dialogue with the party they support.” He calls this approach “moderation through engagement.”
So far, his idea has failed to gain traction. His party’s leaders have pointed out it was an AfD supporter who was recently accused by police of murdering a CDU official. And Germans tend to know their history: The last time an extreme-right party was given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to enter a coalition, it did not work out well for anyone.
“Never again” has been the message that has shaped the politics of the democratic world since 1945. But lately it has had to compete with Mr. Patzelt’s idea – that perhaps these parties become more dangerous if we never allow them a political voice. After all, doing so only confirms their conspiracy theories about powerful elites (often from specific ethnic groups) controlling everything.
The cordon has fallen apart in several countries in recent years (aside from places like Hungary and the United States, where extremists have fully captured executive power). Most notably, parties of intolerance have joined coalitions in the Netherlands in 2002 and 2010, in Austria in 2000 and 2017, in Denmark a few times in recent years, in Finland in 2015 and in Italy a couple times, most recently last year.
As the writer Leonid Bershidsky pointed out this week, these experiments have generally “failed miserably,” rarely lasting a full term of office.
The most recent failure was in Italy, where last month a coalition government led by Matteo Salvini of the far-right League party fell apart in mutual distrust, and his coalition partner Five Star, an oddball protest party, ran off to form a new government with the left-leaning Democratic Party.
Treating these parties (but not their voters) as a social disease appears to be the more effective approach. Mainstream conservative parties that invite them into coalitions or bend too far to regain their voters tend to become poisoned. As Titus Molkenbur, a Berlin political analyst, said this week: "The danger of a slow-burn adaptation to extreme-right sentiment is very serious.”
Doug Saunders, the Globe’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.